Safe Biking Requires Annual Check-Up

From the WebMD Archives

April 11, 2001 -- Spring has definitely sprung. That means longer, warmer days -- which many plan to spend exploring the open road on a bike. But before peddling off into the sunset, experts say a check-up is in order -- for the bike.

Bikes that have spent the winter in storage will need some maintenance before they can safely begin a new season, Rich Litsky tells WebMD. Litsky oversees the bike department at The Sports Authority corporate headquarters in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

"Both extreme cold and extreme heat will affect all the fittings on a bike, so a bike stored in a garage or attic for long periods is not going to come out of storage in the same condition that it went into storage," he says.

At a minimum, Litsky says the bike will need a tune-up from a qualified bike technician at a bike shop or sporting goods store.

Stephen Pribut, DPM, tells WebMD that a detailed safety check is probably in order to avoid biking injuries. Pribut, a Washington-based podiatrist and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, says that the safety check-up should include a size or fit analysis.

Bikes, he says, need to be properly "fitted" for the rider. Any reputable bike shop can help with fitting, Pribut says, but he offers a few hints: The seat should be level, tilted neither back nor forward, and if one is pushing the pedal with "tippy toes" the seat is too high.

William D. O'Halloran, DPM, of Fort Collins, Col., says that ideal seat placement would put the "the front of the knee directly over the ball of the foot when the pedal is completely depressed."

O'Halloran authored a recent study of the biomechanics of bicycling injuries and has served as an advisor to the Coors Classic bike race. He tells WebMD there is a limit to how high a bike seat can be safely raised.

"There is a score line on the stem that marks how high the seat can be raised. Raising it higher will mean that there is too little stem left in the frame and the seat will come loose," he says.

This can be a particular problem for parents whose children have shot up over the winter months. O'Halloran says that rather than raising the seat too high, parents should consider buying a new or used bike with a bigger frame.

The other important consideration in bike size is the cross bar.

"The cross bar should be an inch to two inches lower than the riders crotch when the rider has both feet on the ground," says O'Halloran.

Even if the bike is still the right size, O'Halloran says it will still require a tune-up before starting a new season. That means checking brakes, brake pads, gears, spokes, rims, and tires. "The front tire is more important that the rear tire because a blow-out on the front is more likely to cause an accident," he says.

In terms of accident prevention, helmets are where it's at, Thomas Robb, DO, director of the trauma center at St. Barnabas Medical Center in New York, tells WebMD. Robb and his staff initiated a helmet safety program late last year and have already distributed 3,000 helmets.

"We plan to give away another 2,000 in the next month," he says.

Robb says he and his emergency room colleagues are making the rounds of schools and recreation centers to preach the helmet gospel.

"I tell them that there is a big difference between a head injury and a broken arm or hand," says Robb. "I tell them that the arm will heal, but very often there is no healing from a head injury."

A few hundred miles southwest of Robb, Linda Hawkins, Philadelphia's "Helmet Lady" is preaching the same message. Hawkins is coordinator of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Philadelphia, a volunteer group housed at Children's Medical Center.

She tells WebMD that helmets are a must -- but to be effective "the helmet has to be the right size. Lots of times parents want to buy a helmet, but they don't fit the helmet in the store so they get the wrong size.

Typically a helmet will be sized by age; for example, the box will say for ages 5 to 7. Parents with a 6-year-old will buy that helmet, but it may not fit, she says. So if it doesn't fit, but the 6-year-old has a new bike, he or she will be riding the bike while the parent is exchanging the helmet. Wrong. Rule number one is open the box and fit the helmet in the store."

Hawkins says a helmet fits when the side straps form a "V" around the child's ears, the chinstrap allows just one finger to fit under the chin, and the clip is in the center.

"And most important, the helmet has to be worn so that it covers the forehead. It tell kids to protect the smart spot," she says.

Hawkins says too that if "the helmet has been in an accident, it needs to be replaced. Some helmet manufacturers will include warranty cards that allow replacement after accidents, and I recommend checking into this before buying a helmet."

After fitting the bike and the helmet, Pribut has one last piece of advice: Stay away from cotton socks.

Once the biker has worked up a sweat, "cotton socks just fill with moisture and swell. That leads to blisters or athletes' foot," he says. A better choice would be "a biking sock that costs about $5 to $7. The socks are made of synthetic material that draws off the moisture."